In Colorado, livestock owners are not required to fence their livestock in. Instead, if landowners want to keep livestock off their property, they must fence the livestock out. This is sometimes referred to as the “Open Range Law”, but the concept of open range is not a law. Instead, it describes land use. The law that actually establishes the obligation to fence livestock out is generally referred to as the fence law or fence statute, and it may be found in Colorado Revised Statutes (C.R.S.) section 35-46-102.
The fence statute generally provides that any person who maintains in good repair a “lawful fence” may recover money damages for damage to his or her property caused by livestock that breakthrough the fence. The statute defined a “lawful fence” as a “well-constructed three barbed wire fence with substantial posts set at a distance of approximately twenty feet apart, and sufficient to turn ordinary horses and cattle, with all gates equally as good as the fence, or any other fence of life efficiency.” For purposes of the fence statute, the term “livestock” includes horses, cattle, mules, asses, goats, sheep, swine, buffalo, and cattalo.
The fence statute provides recourse for property owners whose property is damaged by livestock breaching a properly maintained lawful fence. It does not provide recourse in cases where there is no lawful fence, or the lawful fence is in disrepair, or gates are left open. The nature of the recourse is civil – i.e., money damages for damage to property, and injunctive relief to prohibit further trespass. It is not a criminal statute. And, it is important to understand that injury to people is not covered by the fence statute – only injury/ damage to property.
Most livestock owners do not want their livestock to stray and will respond quickly to recover them. If you find livestock running loose on your property and you know who the owner is, call him right away and ask him to retrieve his stock. If you do not know who the owner is, call a brand inspector. The law allows you to take temporary custody of livestock found on your property, but remember that if you do so, you are responsible for their care and feeding. And, if you do not know who owns the livestock and you take custody of them, you must contact a brand inspector within 5 days to arrange for the inspector to identify the livestock and their owner.
Good fences make good neighbors. Colorado livestock owners should consider the following practices to reduce the likelihood of conflict with neighbors: (1) Make sure that your livestock have sufficient water and pasture/feed, (2) quickly recover any strays or escapees, (3) inspect fences regularly and ensure that they are in good repair, and (4) coordinate with you neighbors on building and maintaining partition fences, if appropriate.
(There are separate laws that address livestock running at large on public highways and in municipalities. They may be found at C.R.S. 35-46-105, and C.R.S. 35-47-101. )